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Long flight to Italy yields red-eye zombie

Over the past holidays, I had occasion to listen to my 20-something nieces and nephews discuss their world travel experiences. They were comparing the French cuisine to Italian fare and discussing the quality of the accommodations in Beijing. Since the breadth of my international travel extends as far as Crystal Beach, Ontario, I was a tad jealous.

Later, I complained to my long-suffering wife. "How come these kids have been all over the world?" I whined. "They've been to the Bolshoi and I haven't even been to the Canadian Ballet, although I hear it is quite stimulating." She sighed.

"Perhaps it's because your idea of a vacation is moving the TV set out to the garage for the summer." She handed me a pamphlet. "Why don't we go to Italy next month with a group from our church? Besides, at your age you should be exploring your spiritual side."

Although I don't really have a spiritual side, I agreed to the trip. On the night we left for Europe, the tour guide explained that Italy's today is already our tomorrow, so when we get there it will be yesterday. As far as I could tell we would either arrive in Rome two days before we left or sometime in the Bronze Age. We climbed aboard an Alitalia plane and were greeted by magnificent full leather seats equipped with personal televisions and adjustable reading lamps. Then I realized I was in first class and was headed back to steerage with the rest of the cattle.

My seat was directly across from the bathroom. The door was less than two feet from my head. For the next 10 hours, I would be treated to the slam of the door, the click of the lock and, after a decent pause, the whoosh of the chemical toilet. Had Dante been on the flight with me, he would have discovered there is a tenth circle of hell. Slam. Click. Whoosh.

As soon as we were airborne, the woman sitting in front of me violently moved her seat to the full reclining position, thus introducing my knees to my solar plexus. I sat there, in full fetal position, listening to a symphony of coughing, sneezing, throat clearing and sleep apnea gasping from my fellow travelers. I wondered which illness I would contract, Legionnaires' disease, avian flu or the plague.

Just then the in-flight movie began -- I kid you not -- "Contagion." The movie begins with the beautiful Gwyneth Paltrow flying home from an overseas trip and looking wretched. She dies a horrible death after catching a virus. Pass the peanuts, please.

Within the first few hours, the perky flight attendants served us dinner in little plastic containers; it looked like smurf food. On the positive side, this particular airline serves all the free wine you can drink. In vino comatas.

After dinner, the lights were turned off and everyone on the plane except me and the pilot seemed to fall asleep. I thought I saw gremlins on the wing trying to sabotage the flight; I imagined snakes slithering down the aisles. For a while, I pretended I was the president on Air Force One.

For seven hours I existed in this altered state of sleepy sleeplessness; not quite awake, but not really dreaming. I was part of the airborne undead, a red-eye zombie. I eyed the emergency exit with suicidal thoughts.

Suddenly all the cabin lights came on and the captain was yelling what sounded like, "Bon Jovi, Bon Jovi!" He said we were just one hour out of Rome. My wife woke and said that was the best rest she'd ever had. She smiled and asked, "Aren't you excited about landing in Italy?"

"No," I said. "The next time we go to Italy, we take a cruise liner!"

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Bob O'Connor, who lives in Hamburg, plans to travel by sea if he ever returns to Europe.